Beginning Sewing and Leather Working

Before I explain how to create clothing and accessories from fabric and leather, I will explain what tools are required for each craft. There are entire industries built around selling tools and supplies for sewing and working leather, but most beginners’ projects require nothing more than a good pattern, careful planning, and time.

Here is a comparison of the tools needed to begin sewing fabric verses what is needed to begin working with leather.

Sewing Fabric Working Leather
Tools: fabric, scissors, needle, thread, pins, iron, chalk, ruler, graph paper, pencil Tools: leather, utility knife, cutting mat, needle, thread or cord, leather punches, rubber or wooden mallet, masking tape, metal ruler, graph paper, felt tip pen
What not to buy: a sewing machine. Learn how fabric, seams, and an iron are used to shape and form projects. What not to buy: a starter kit. Many of the included tools will not be used. Punches, cutting tools, and cord will be enough for most projects.
Materials: scrap fabric is easy to obtain. Sheets from Goodwill make excellent fabric mockups, which are called ‘muslins’. Materials: scrap leather is harder to find and more expensive than fabric. Leather jackets from Goodwill and stripping leather couches on the side of the road are inexpensive options.
Mistakes: easily corrected, but fraying is an issue. Multiple seams are needed to prevent fraying. Mistakes: harder to correct, but fraying is never an issue. One seam per edge is usually enough.
Teachers: someone in the local SCA group will know how to sew, and can explain the basics. Teachers: there might be someone who can teach leather working in the SCA group. If not, ask for lessons on the FaceBook groups, and be prepared to drive to an event or someone’s house.

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Here are my basic sewing tools. I also have an ironing board. If you don’t have the space for a board or cannot afford one, laying a clean towel on top of a table will give you a reasonable ironing surface. The iron is critical because it presses seams, making projects look professional.

 

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In contrast, these are my basic leather working tools. I find the metal triangular ruler extremely helpful for working leather because it lets me align and cut right angles. Note that my cutting mat is grey. You may find blue or green mats in sewing stores, but these are intended for fabric cutting and should not be used with a leather punch or a utility knife.

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Making a Heraldic Plushie

Winged Lioness Rampant
One of the silly things I’ve seen SCA members do is buy (or make) plushies of their Heraldry. Since my Heraldry is a silver winged cat, I doubt I’ll be able to buy an off-the-shelf plushie anytime soon.

After some thought, I realized I could just get a white cat plushie and find a similar bird or bat plushie to use for wings. Since Beanie Babies are small and made from similar materials, I was able to find a white cat and a swan on eBay cheaply. (When I posted about this on my FaceBook, someone mentioned the swan plushie is often given red sequins and presented to a new Pelican.)

A little work with a thread and needle, and I give you Argent, my Winged Lioness plushie. I also decided to make her a collar with my badge, since she should be identifiable as one of my possessions. Badges are the Heraldic equivalent of saying, “This is mine.”

 

Don’t Rush Sewing!

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One danger of sewing is rushing to finish a project. This can lead to all sorts of mistakes, from forgetting to press your seams with an iron to stabbing yourself with a needle. (Many crafters believe that a project isn’t “yours” until you’ve bled on it. My project goals include not having to use my First Aid kit.)

I’m going on a road trip in a few days, and I wanted to bring some projects to work on en route. One of the things on my to-make list is a Norse tunic to wear when I’m volunteering at Heralds’ Point. Most of my garb is blue with silver accents, but because author Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds wear all white, many Scadian Heralds do as well.

I have learned that the easiest way to construct a Norse T-tunic is to cut out the torso pieces, lay them flat, and complete the neck opening while the entire project is flat.

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In order to keep the fabric of the neck from fraying, I sew a rectangular piece of cloth that comes down to a point around the neck. All of my other projects have a contrasting color of fabric at the neck and cuffs, but this project is all about white fabric, blue train, and blue stitching in contrast to the white.

Because this tunic doesn’t have a contrasting collar, I didn’t  bother to stitch the under layer neatly before I added the trim. I didn’t notice how  irregular it was until after I’d finished stitching the trim. I considered removing all the stitching and redoing this properly.

I have chosen to keep the irregular neck. It is not only a useful reference point for my progression as a historical seamstress, but a way of showing newer sewers what not to do. The complexity of Scadian garments can be daunting to newcomers. I’m keeping this as a reminder that nobody becomes an expert without a few mistakes.

Sewing a Viking Cloak

VikingCloakThe first thing I entered in an Arts and Sciences competition was my möttull, a semicircular cloak. At the time I was fencing, and had seen other Carolingian fencers wearing short, wrist-length cloaks.

I prefer a circular or semicircular cloak to a square or rectangular cloak because a cloak with corners will have an uneven distribution of fabric weight at those corners.

Thor Ewing’s  Viking Clothing book mentions a reference to a semicircular cloak in the Kormáks saga, and suggests this cloak  design might have been introduced in the Viking age. This type of cloak was pinned at the shoulder.

This cloak was the first time I tried using embroidery floss for the running stitch that edges the garment. It’s such a simple thing, but I’m always touched when people compliment me on it.

VikingDrawingThe hardest part of making this cloak was remembering that the hood would not attach at the center of the neck opening. It felt very strange to me to have fabric extend past the edge of the hood. At Pennsic, I was surprised at how useful it was to choose to cover or free my right arm. If it was cold, I tucked the extra fabric around my body. When the day warmed, I could uncover my right arm and carry things or easily pull my  latest hand sewing project out of my bag.

I scanned this illustration from page 106 of Viking Clothing. It shows a figure from the Oseberg Tapestry wearing a wrapped, hooded cloak that exposes the right shoulder.

The Bog Dress: An Early Sewing Project

CAM00229One of the first things I made for Pennsic was a Bog Dress. The garment is named after the dress recovered from a peat bog. I used Alfrun’s Bog Dress pattern. I really appreciated her attention to details. Her suggestion for sewing the pleats by hand before doing the overstitching was invaluable.

This dress was one of the first pieces I sewed for the SCA, and it has a number of problems that I have learned from.

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The biggest issue with this dress is how the arm opening isn’t the same length in the front and back flaps. I overcompensated for the back panel needing to fold over the shoulder. In the next iteration of the dress, I’ll try it on, make sure I can move both arms comfortably, and then cut the back panel to match the front panel’s length.

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I love the way the side seams look, but they were a pain to sew. The next time I make this dress, I’ll sew the front and back panels together first, and then hem all the edges.

One of the marks of a true craftsman is that we will always see more flaws in our work than anyone else. I could rip out seams and make this dress much better. Instead, I choose to leave it as it is. This dress has become part of the record of my sewing in the SCA. I want to keep it, wear it, and show newcomers that nobody starts out making perfect garb!

 

Sewing a Heraldic Viking Maiden Dress

Heraldic Dress The shield atop my blog displays my arms, Azure, a winged ounce rampant within an orle argent. I wanted to display my arms in everyday Scadien life, so I set out to make a Viking maiden’s dress to wear to Court and Feasts.

I am often asked why I don’t wear the typical Viking Apron Dress with Turtle Broaches. While researchers are not sure about the significance of the broaches, they are never found in the graves of children or young teens, but only in the graves of older women. This leads me to believe that  Turtle Broaches were the Viking equivalent of the modern wedding ring–they would certainly make feeding babies easier!

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This is why my Heraldic Dress is an ankle-length tunic. I also took a Step From Period Practice by incorporating my orle border into the dress’ hems and neckline. A typical Viking tunic or dress would have a contrasting colored band at the neck and hems. I used blue thread that contrasts against the grey in a simple running stitch.CAM00156

If I had to do this project over again, I would make my winged cat smaller. It’s over 30″ tall, and because it’s so big it sometimes gets lost in the folds of my dress. This picture shows it next to my shield cover. If you’re planning on making a large applique for a dress or tunic, I encourage you to keep it less than 24″ on a side!CAM00042

I cut my cat out of the same linen I made the bands from, and in retrospect I realize that was a mistake. I attached the grey cat to the blue fabric with iron-on interfacing, and then went over every line with embroidery floss using a pillow stitch. I spent almost three weeks doing almost nothing by embroidery. The photo to the left is an early work-in-progress photo, with the lines that would become blue marked in chalk.

The next time I decide to do applique, I’ll use wool, which doesn’t fray and can be tacked down with a blanket stitch!

Finally, you may have noticed that my Arms look similar to the new East Kingdom Order of the Silver Tyger badge. I had to grant my entire Kingdom Permission to Conflict with my Arms! (I’m wondering how long it will be before some nice older knight pulls me aside and tells me my arms will never pass.)

Solving Problems with Design: A LARP Vest

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I’m an avid member of the Society of Creative Anachronisms,  but I was a Live Action Role Player (LARPer) for a decade and a half before I changed alternate lifestyles. This vest is both the most beautiful and the most complicated piece of cloth engineering that I have created. The Yggdrasil embroidery took me three months’ worth of D&D games.

CAM00306 I refer to this piece as engineering, because it’s not just a costume. I needed to have a lot of pockets to hold my spellbook, notebook, components, tags, and props. I’d originally carried a shoulder bag, but it didn’t have enough pockets. The front of this vest has four separate flat pockets, and two larger cargo pockets on the sides.CAM00310

The large cargo pockets measured 12″ deep, 7″ wide, and about 1.5″ wide. I could easily fit 40 spellpackets into each of the two pockets. At some point in a large battle, I would be scrambling to transfer packets from the left pocket, where I held my bow, to the right pocket, where I grabbed my packet ammo. Friends sometimes snagged packets out of these pockets in a pinch.

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All of these pockets were extremely useful, but I feel the real genius of the project was making the vest adjustable. LARPs run in the spring, summer, and fall, and temperatures will vary from 40 to  90 degrees. I needed a single costume item that I could wear over nothing more than a swim suit, but would still work layered over an undershirt, overshirt, and chainmail, while still being able to throw a cloak over the whole ensemble. To that end, I put velcro strips in the belt, both to be adjustable and so I could quickly change my under-layers. The top half of the vest is lined protect the embroidery.